My father is an immigrant from Bombay, India. He moved here to go to college and graduate school. He is Muslim. While working at Rutgers University he met my mother; she is Jewish. They were married within a year. As I often joke, I know there will never be peace in the Middle East as there was never peace in our home. They split when I was 13.
Growing up, my father used to “Americanize” his name so people would not have a hard time. Instead of Abbas, he became Abe and instead of Bhagat (pronounced Bah-gaht) we became the “Bag-its.” You have no idea of the “bag it Bhagat” jokes. Once at a summer picnic with my father’s next door neighbors, they asked what my stepmother’s name was. Apparently she too had been Americanized from Zulie to Julie.
When I got to college and then entered the professional world, I began to insist on being called Bah-gaht. My first name became Dur-ee-yan, instead of Dorian and the nickname of Dur. I began to insist people get it right. Hanging up on cold callers if they didn’t pronounce it right. Really getting mad when I was called Mr. Bagit.
I took pride in the fact I was a first generation American. When asked my ethnicity I often answered American and didn’t volunteer any more information. If asked I would answer my father was Indian and that my mother was Jewish American. I tend to leave the ethnic box unchecked as American is not an option.
And then September 11, 2001 happened. At the time I was living in a small section of Brooklyn in the smoke cloud of the Twin Towers.
The day after, as I walked through my lovely neighborhood, I heard a comment following me. “Damn Arabs, I so (expletive) sick of them.” A friend kept me moving not allowing me to turn around. A few blocks later I got various dirty looks from people. Was I imagining it? I asked her if she saw it and she didn’t respond.
How do you respond? I’ve lived here my entire life. Not only am I a first generation American, I’m Jewish and participate in a Jewish life. I have been in Israel during a bomb attack in the 80s. I was in the center of downtown Los Angeles during the riots in the 90s. I have seen the pain of people attacking people. I also feel the rage of what has happened at the World Trade Center. I, too, was shocked and pained by watching the second tower collapse. I, too, checked for missing loved ones.
And yet, in the aftermath I was judged by my neighbors for the color of my skin.
My mom apologized. She never thought my brother and I would face challenges because of our skin color. When she married my father, it was about black and white. Today it’s about brown, black, white, yellow and green. She actually commented that it was good I walk home with my husband, an apple-pie American from Colorado, so as not to be a target.
In the ’50s light-skinned African Americans passed for white. I have passed for numerous ethnicities, including Italian (according to my butcher and my older friends at physical therapy), Hispanic and even, Israeli. It was never a big deal. I am what I am.
In the days that followed, I went to work and tried to pick up and move forward. But I was still angry. Once, someone mentioned my last name had given me a step up in hiring as it corporately translated to minority. This was one of many reasons I decided to keep my last name when I got married. Cold reality, but true. In the days after 9/11, I seriously considering becoming a Clark – without the hyphenation. Americanization by marriage.